Drop by a UNIQLO store in Manila, Singapore, or Kuala Lumpur, and you are almost assured that at any given time, there is a queue at the counter. Since the Japanese-borne casual clothing company ventured into global expansion in 2002, it has been a global favourite among shoppers across all demographics — Southeast Asia not exempt. In the region alone, UNIQLO already has over a hundred branches. This number is already near the number of McDonald's branches in Singapore (which is at 136), where the first outlet in Southeast Asia opened in 1979 (the region's biggest UNIQLO store though, is in Manila, where it holds the title of 15th global flagship store).
How did Southeast Asians find a shared love for this brand? While UNIQLO has always separated itself from fast fashion by adopting a "LifeWear" philosophy and purveying a "basic" aesthetic, Southeast Asians are in fact attracted to UNIQLO as a lifestyle, according to University of the Philippines professor, Palanca award-winning author, and pop culture commentator Jose Wendell Capili.
The unique Southeast Asian market
"It appears that UNIQLO is an ordinary brand in Japan. But in Southeast Asia, for many millennials, UNIQLO is a lifestyle, partly because Japan or 'Made in Japan' is synonymous to quality, high technology, strong aesthetic sense and attention to details," he says.
Having had spent a chunk of his life in Japan while obtaining a diploma at the University of Tokyo, he says that while UNIQLO is both a global and Japanese brand ("Japanese, because the clothes are understated"), part of its appeal is its accessibility. "As a University of Tokyo student during the early to mid-1990s, UNIQLO was largely perceived as one of many popular brands that made itself accessible to university students like myself then. I think many of my Japanese friends are shocked but happily surprised by UNIQLO's tremendous success in Southeast Asia and in many places around the world." he said.
While quality options may be abundant in Japan, outside the country, these can be quite expensive. UNIQLO, he says, addresses this need by positioning itself with affordable prices. "UNIQLO has captured a quality and loyal market without many viable options," he says. "Especially in Southeast Asia."
The price point makes this brand accessible to millennials, which thus makes it a perfect fit in Southeast Asia which is teeming with this demographic.
Aside from the age factor, another consideration in Southeast Asia is the values of the market. While Southeast Asia's emerging markets are becoming centres of growth in the world, the population remains considerably conservative. This has an obvious impact on fashion choices.
"UNIQLO sustains the expectations of its Southeast Asian market, and continues to do so by way of attending to possibilities in terms of movements. In other words, UNIQLO is ahead of its market by being attuned to current and future expectations," Capili says. "By priding its products as LifeWear, UNIQLO does not attempt to go avant-garde or earth-shaking. It is not high fashion. But it is a no-nonsense, practical, comfortable line. It goes along the classic lines. Most of the time, it does not go out of style."